Called to Be Crowd Warmers

Sermon for Advent 5 (2B)
December 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8
In preparation for this morning, I was reading the Rev. Theresa Cho’s reflection on the passage from today’s gospel.  Pastor Cho is a blogger and serves as a co-pastor of a Presbyterian church in San Francisco.  Her reflection is called “Baptismal Limitations” and in it she describes the work that John the Baptist does – baptizing, of course, but also receiving confession and preaching.  Each of the things that Jesus will do are things John is already doing; but John knows that he has limitations.[1] John is clear that the work he is doing is merely preparation for the work of Jesus – Jesus, who John proclaims, “is more powerful than” he is.  So much so, in fact, that John does not even feel “worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”[2]
So John is limited in what he can accomplish.  And yet he finds his place in the story of his faith. He knows the writings of the prophet Isaiah and understands himself to be the messenger that Isaiah wrote about, a messenger of preparation, of hope, of anticipation.  In the theatre world we might think of John as the crowd-warmer, the stand-up comedian whose job it is to get the audience in the mood for the main event.
There are ways in which you and I serve as crowd warmers, ways in which we have more in common with the likes of John the Baptist than the likes of Jesus. In other words, we have limitations. We are not qualified to be the main event. There are a variety of responses to this news – to this recognition of our limitations. One common response is to just throw up our hands and say, “Why bother? It won’t make a difference anyhow?”  At one time or another, I think, everyone has this experience – it can be in the face of a political climate that seems decisively divisive, it can be after a job search turns up rejection after rejection after rejection, or it can be for a student whose best efforts in class seem never to be enough.  Why bother? It won’t make a difference anyhow?
But this is precisely the reason we need someone like John the Baptist to enter the story – to enter OUR story of faith.  Because John the Baptist acknowledges limitations. My goodness, he understands himself to be not even worthy of being the servant of Jesus, the one who would untie Jesus’ sandals. And yet, even with these limitations, John does not throw up his arms in defeat. He does not surrender.  He presses on to play his part in the unfolding drama, even when that part will lead ultimately to his death.
Another response to the news that we are not the main event is to ignore it and act as though we are.  We can do this in all sorts of ways – working harder and longer hours until someone notices how important we are (or until we burn ourselves out with trying). We can do this by not asking for help when we need it. Or it can happen by tweeting something so outrageous or controversial that the news cycle around us stops and looks our way – even if only for a moment – thereby making us believe once again that are, in fact, the main event. 
The book of Isaiah was written over a number of centuries but it was begun sometime in the 8th century BC – a time when Israel was first occupied by the Assyrian Empire and later, taken over by the Babylonian Empire.  When the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, they took over Jerusalem and deported many of the Israelites to Babylon.  The first part of Isaiah tries to explain the reason for these events and the author does not mince words:
“Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! . . . as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”[3]
This is one of the more common explanations that the prophets offered for why horrible things happened to the Israelites – because they acted with arrogance and self-importance and behaved according to their own precepts rather than relying on and obeying the one true God, they were punished. Now, however, we feel today about such punitive measures meted out by a God we have come to know and understand as all loving, the truism behind it remains: we are not the main event and when we act as though we are, things will likely not go well for long.
And again, this is precisely why we need John the Baptist in our story of faith.  John the Baptist is right-sized.  A little bizarre in his camel-hair eating-locusts-and-wild-honey kind of way – but, nonetheless, right-sized and clear about his purpose in life. Clear about his place in God’s drama and willing to take his part.
A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the baptism of Gwendolyn Susan Lewis, daughter of Mark Babbitt and Kate Lewis.  In that event we were reminded of our own baptism and the promises we have made.  In our baptism – and in our regular remembrance of those covenantal promises – we are saying we will take our place in the unfolding drama of God’s story.  We, like John the Baptist, willingly agree to prepare the way for the return of Christ.  We prepare the way through our ongoing participation in worship, through the reading and studying of Scripture, through prayer.  We prepare the way by standing up against the evil in the world whether that is through contacting our elected representatives when unfair bills are being considered or standing with brothers and sisters who risk deportation to a land they’ve never called home.  We prepare the way by caring for the homebound and the homeless, by providing food and shelter to our neighbors in need, by visiting the sick and the imprisoned.  We prepare the way by being the Good News of God in Christ in a world that is desperate for Good News.  We prepare the way.
We prepare the way for one who is more powerful than we can even imagine. We prepare the way for one whom we feel unworthy to even stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  And yet we prepare the way, boldly living into our own limitations and, at the same time, rejoicing that Jesus Christ - the one who has come, who is with us now, and who will come again - calls us Beloved, just as we are.  Prepare the way.

[1] Theresa Cho, “Advent 2: Baptismal Limitations, Mark 1:1-8,” in “Advent/Christmas Series: Coming Soon,” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 85-86.
[2] Mark 1:7.
[3] Isaiah 5:21, 24.